Rory Burns shows the value of picking specialists

Rory Burns walks back to the pavilion Getty Images

Michael Gove may think society in general has had enough of experts but, from an England cricket perspective, they're starting to look like a pretty good idea.

By reaching 50 for the third time in the series, Rory Burns provided further evidence of the wisdom of picking specialist players for specialist positions. Already he has become just the third England opener since the retirement of Andrew Strauss to reach 50 three times in a single series - Alastair Cook and Alex Hales, who did so against Sri Lanka in 2016 are the others - with all the other openers combined making one half-century between them in the series so far.

This should not be a complete surprise. Burns has spent most of his career at the top of the order. He has scored 1,000 runs in each of the previous five domestic first-class seasons and, in the process, learned his trade well. These challenges - these surfaces, these balls - present few mysteries to him.

Bearing in mind those statistics, it's odd that it took the selectors so long to pick Burns. Instead English cricket pursued a policy of selecting aggressive openers - or even just aggressive top-order batsmen who were press-ganged into opening - with Burns picked as something of a last resort. He has shown, however, not only the wisdom of picking players who understand the specific challenges of the role, but men whose techniques might not be aesthetically pleasing but are shown to have worked.

Burns' success is built as much on mental resilience as it is on technical competence. But it's the combination of the two factors that renders him such a valuable player. For he acknowledges there will be times, especially against an attack as good as this, when he will be beaten on or outside off stump. But while some of his colleagues pushed and prodded at balls nipping away from the outside edge, Burns held the line and played with bat close to his body and under his eyes. And while some of his colleagues would become anxious and allow the pressure to build, Burns has the phlegmatic attitude of a man who accepts such indignities as part of the job. He put each delivery - whether it brought triumph or defeat - behind him and concentrated on the next one. It was an innings that would have made Cook proud.

"He knows his game well and he's committed to it" Josh Hazlewood said afterwards. "He's scored some valuable runs at the top of the order. He looks a good player."

Burns was helped by a couple of factors. Firstly, Mitchell Starc failed to maintain the impeccable control of his colleagues and allowed some release in the pressure. Burns took him for 22 in 10 deliveries at one stage - a feast by comparison to the rest of his innings - and in all hit four boundaries off him. By comparison, he managed just one off Hazlewood and none at all off the 47 deliveries he faced from Pat Cummins.

Also read: Cummins, Hazlewood in rescue tandem

The other factor that may have helped him was Australia's policy of testing him with the short ball. While the delivery had troubled him earlier in the series - he was dismissed by short balls twice in Leeds and once each at Edgbaston and Lord's - on this relatively slow surface, he had time to duck and weave his way out of trouble. And, all the while Australia were concentrating on the ploy, they were squandering the chances of dismissing via the outside edge.

But this was arguably the most assured innings of his 11-Test career. Increasingly, he looked not just as if he felt he could manage, but as if he belonged. Having struggled to combat Nathan Lyon at Edgbaston - yes, he made a century, but he would be the first to admit he enjoyed some fortune along the way - he looked comfortable against him here despite the surprising degree of turn achieved on a third-day pitch. Making no attempt to drive him, Burns instead waited for anything short. Three times he cut him for four, on another occasion he swept in front of square. As a result, Australia were forced to post a sweeper, allowing just a little less pressure around the bat and a few more holes in the field.

"It wasn't a bad ball," Burns said of the delivery that dismissed him; a fine ball that demanded a stroke before it both bounced and left him. "It was one of those when sometimes you walk off and you can be pretty at peace with yourself.

"The short ball is probably not a bad plan on a surface that wasn't offering masses in terms of seam movement. But, like Steve Smith said, you are not worrying about your off stump too much when facing bouncers. You can get under stuff and bat for long periods of time. It was a scrap and it was mentally challenging, but it was quite enjoyable."

It would be premature to envisage Burns as a captaincy alternative to Root. While he has enjoyed some experience in the role - he led Surrey to the County Championship title in 2018 - he has more to do before he can be considered an automatic selection in the long-term. This was an encouraging step forward, but he will need to score heavily for an extended period of time before he can be considered a viable alternative.

It's worth contrasting Burns' experiences at the top of the order to those of England's other openers in this series. At one stage on Thursday night, Joe Denly - the latest sacrificial offering at the top of the order was beaten by four balls in succession from Hazlewood. At another, he was struck on the shoulder by a Starc bouncer. The two balls before he was out, he was beaten on either edge by Cummins. It was a torturous innings which suggested Denly neither knew which ball to leave or play and that he did not have the compact game to ensure he did not push outsides edges to the slips. He looked, in short, like a man parachuted into the opening position.

And then there's Jason Roy. The knock-on effect of Burns' excellent third-wicket stand with Joe Root was to delay Roy's arrival at the crease until the 65th over. As a result, he came in against an older, softer ball and a bowling attack that may in theory - there was little sign of it in reality - have tired a little. And, for a while, as he laced three boundaries between backward point and extra cover, that appeared to help.

But, before too long, those technical faults came back to haunt him. Pushing at one from Hazlewood - a terrific ball that nipped in off the seam - with hands advancing ahead of his front pad, he left a hole between bat and pad. Bowlers as good as Hazlewood - and, to be fair, there aren't many better - will find those gaps and exploit them. Already you fear as if Roy's confidence - and, indeed, his Test career - may have been compromised by asking him to bat out of position. Test cricket is hard enough without having to learn a new trade on the job. Burns has shown the value of specialisation.